Under Silicon Valley’s Rough Turf, Tunnels of Women’s Networks Spread

[Corrected 7/11/17, 11:02 am. See below.] Revelations about gender bias and crude sexual harassment at Uber have been followed by similar claims by women against Silicon Valley venture capital investors, leaving a weary impression that the deck is almost hopelessly stacked against women in tech.

But women aren’t facing these challenges alone, female entrepreneurs say—not if they tap into the dense ecosystem of engineers’ groups, startup founders’ organizations, meet-ups, conferences, mentoring relationships, and female-friendly investors that have evolved in parallel with established Silicon Valley institutions mostly staffed by men.

“Networking is one of the most valuable things you can do,” says Laura Montoya, director of the East Bay chapter of Women Who Code and a startup founder.

If anything, women’s groups—representing thousands of members—seem energized by the eruptions of public attention to gender discrimination and harassment that arose after former Uber engineer Susan Fowler and other women accused powerful men in the tech industry of pressuring them sexually, touching, or groping them. Female entrepreneurs accused a venture firm founder in the technology news publication The Information on June 22, and ten more women named other VCs in a New York Times story on June 30. [Details added on The Information ‘s coverage.]

“One of the positive things about the current situation is that there’s intense focus on it that could drive some change,” says Elizabeth Iorns, co-founder of Palo Alto, CA-based Science Exchange, a marketplace for contract research services.

Up until now, women have rarely brought their complaints out into the open—often for fear of retaliation in an industry still mainly populated by men.

But the recent incidents have unleashed an urge to encourage more of these realities about life in Silicon Valley to bubble up to the surface. “People are getting more open,” Iorns says.

Although the number of women who came forward recently was relatively small, their public revelations ended with serious consequences for male executives accused—a rare phenomenon. Fowler’s scathing blogpost about tolerance of sexual harassment at Uber helped trigger a company investigation that ended in founder Travis Kalanick’s ouster as CEO, as well as the departures of some of his closest associates in top management. In the wake of The Information’s  story and The Times article, two of the accused venture capital firm partners left their jobs, and some publicly apologized. [Details added on The Information’s coverage.]

“I was really surprised that anything has come from that,” says Michelle Glauser, founder of Techtonica, a non-profit tech training and job development organization for low-income women and other underrepresented groups. “Fortunately for Susan, the waves just kept coming.”

While those recent revelations haven’t yet opened the floodgates to a mass of open complaints, women in Silicon Valley had already been quietly warning each other for some time about company managers and investors who have a track record of coarse sexual advances, sexist comments, and bias against women, Glauser says. Women share their stories online in an extensive network of groups such as Geek Feminism, the Women in Tech Slack channel, and Google groups like Systers and DevChicks, she says.

“It’s so active, and there are a million of them,” Glauser says.

Even if a male venture partner or company executive hasn’t been outed on the front page of a national newspaper, his behavior might already be the subject of scorching accounts by women on their group channels, possibly damaging his reputation among hundreds or thousands of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. This could come as a shock to some of those men if they haven’t been directly confronted about their conduct. That’s because women have learned to develop a thick skin, mask their disgust, and keep an eye on advancing their careers, female entrepreneurs say. But within women’s networks, a venture capital firm partner or supervisor who hits on women while holding some form of power over their jobs, or their access to financing, is denounced with words such as “ape-like,” abuser, jerk, creep, or predator.

Science Exchange’s Iorns says informal information exchanges about men in tech increased in the wake of The Times series on sexual harassment in the industry. On the Facebook page of the private group Female Founders, women were offering to help others by sharing their experiences pitching investors, Iorns says. Those confidences may be made offline, in private phone calls or direct messages rather than in Web postings, she says.

While some of the women’s groups are private, however, others are open to anyone, and sometimes they name names. A Geek Feminism wiki is keeping an annotated list of news reports on VCs accused of harassment and gender or racial bias.

Still, there’s no single, open source where all women, regardless of the depth of their professional connections, can efficiently find out how to avoid VC firms that won’t give them a fair shot at funding, or that tolerate sexual predators in their midst. But a number of women entrepreneurs have been thinking about how to create a systematic tool that could provide that sort of information.

After talking over the problem at the recent Female Founders Conference, startup founder Melissa McCool and nine other women entrepreneurs and coders started work on an online, crowdsourced public directory to rank VC firms—a sort of “Yelp for female startup founders,” as McCool describes it. Within a few days, startup founder Vivienne Lee, CEO of YouMeWho, had software written for the website, McCool says.

The 10-member group has a tentative date to go live July 27 with the site, dubbed FairFunders, as an “MVP.” That’s short for a startup developers’ term, “minimal viable product”—an initial version that can be tested with users and built out according to their feedback. The FairFunders group plans to gather facts for a profile of each investment firm, such as its ratio of female partners, and the number of women-led companies it has backed. McCool, the founder of San Diego health IT startup Stellicare, has envisioned ways to honor companies on the site when they follow equitable practices, and to recognize improvements at less inclusive firms. But the site would also serve to alert women about firms that raise serious … Next Page »

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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